Thursday 18 September 2014

Yes and no.

If I still lived in Scotland, I would have voted Yes.

There are all sorts of arguments (and I think we've heard them all to bloody death by now) for and against the feasibility of independence, and frankly I don't think any of them matter. Because surely you start with nationhood and then go out and make your country work, with a shared sense of nationhood giving you the impetus to do so. Elizabeth Tudor inherited an England that was destined to become a backwater of one of the European empires, and then she and the English damn well made England feasible. The USA was a precarious experiment that plenty of people thought would fall on its arse after a couple of years, but the Americans dug in and made it work. You don't abandon nationhood because of current economic considerations. You work to fix the economics because you and your compatriots feel a part of the same grand project.

Up to a point.

For, to pull this off, there are several things you really do need: realism, unity, and good leadership.

Realism is starkly absent from the Yes Campaign, whose "White Paper" might as well have ended with "And a pony!" Now, to some extent, that's fair enough: the SNP only have one policy that matters, and I understand that they can make up any old bollocks for the rest, since actual policy would be decided by future Scottish governments, which (we can but wish) the SNP might not even be in. But still, I'd hope that the people who are going to be building a new nation were doing so on the basis of some things that are, you know, at least approximately true.

First, there's the famous "democratic deficit" that is so taken for granted that the phrase has just become background noise. Scotland, we are told, consistently gets governments that it did not vote for. Raymond Weir skewered that here:

At the last general election, as the only explicitly separatist party, [the SNP] got 19.9% of the popular vote. The combined vote of the unionist parties was around 78%, so Scotland can hardly claim to have been clamouring for independence. At the most recent Scottish parliamentary elections in 2011, the victorious SNP actually gathered fewer votes in Scotland than Margaret Thatcher’s hated Conservatives got in the 1979 general election. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

The way this ‘democratic deficit’ argument is presented, you’d think that Scotland has had to endure decades under the jackboot Reich of hard line, right-wing Tory administrations, but that’s far from being the truth. Since the end of the second world war, general elections in the UK have produced 35 years of Tory rule and 30 years of Labour rule, plus 4 years under the present coalition government. In democratic terms, that seems like a fairly reasonable split between what -on paper, at least- are opposing political ideologies. And if the vast majority of Scots invariably vote for unionist parties, what gives us any more right than the residents of Yorkshire, Cornwall or Suffolk to feel aggrieved by the vicissitudes of the electoral process?

When people say, in the context of this independence referendum, that there is a 'democratic deficit', I think what they mean is: “We don't want a Tory government.” There is nothing wrong with thinking or saying that, but to break up a successful political union just because the odd election doesn't go your way seems like rather a selfish impulse.

Quite. Which brings us, of course, to this idea that the Tories aren't welcome in Scotland, something I've been hearing a lot since, oh, 1992, but which has become absolutely constant during the Yes campaign. Which is odd, because I find there is considerable overlap between the people who are planning to vote Yes and people who want electoral reform — and the total hatred of Scots for the Tories is in fact a mere illusion enabled by the first-past-the-post electoral system. Sure, the Tories don't win seats in Scottish elections, but they do win votes. Rather a lot of them, in fact. In the 2010 general election, they won 412,855 Scottish votes, compared to the SNP's 491,386. Introduce proportional representation, and they'll do rather well. And yet one of the constant refrains of Yes voters is that Independence will see Scotland rid of the hated Tories forever. How? Are they planning to drown them?

Then there's the nationalists' portrayal of the UK they're leaving. Look, Scotland is my favourite country and I don't much care for England, but I'm not delusional (no, really) and I can see the good and bad in both. And, like Alex Massie, I simply do not recognise the caricatures propagated by the Yes campaign:

I don’t recognise the caricature of England (and it is usually England, not the rest of the UK) offered by Yes supporters. They see a heartless, rapacious, profiteering “neoliberal” dystopia; I see a relaxed, liberal, ambitious, open-minded, multi-racial, modern country.

They see the rise of UKIP and are frightened by it; I see UKIP as a bug not a feature because the feature is the manner in which the UK is open to the world and, actually, quite happy about that thank you very much. A UK which, despite its difficulties, has managed the transition from a white country to a multi-racial polity with, in general, commendable ease. They see a broken, sclerotic, unreformable Britain; I see a cosmopolitan country that’s a desirable destination for millions of people around the world.

I have, over the course of this three-year debate, become sick to the back teeth of hearing about how inclusive and welcoming and anti-racist the Scots are, unlike the insular racist Daily-Mail-reading little-Englanders. The only evidence any Yes campaigner has for this supposed awfulness of the English is the recent electoral success of UKIP — a party who, contrary to the propaganda of their enemies, are not even anti-immigration, and who, of course, want exactly the same thing for the UK that the SNP want for Scotland. Living in England, you see, unsurprisingly, a bit of racism — but not much compared to most of the rest of the world. In Scotland, you see a lot. I lived in Govanhill, the centre of Glasgow's Asian population, for seven years. I lost count of the number of times Scots said to me, "Isn't it a problem, living with all they Pakis?" What got me wasn't so much the racism as the casual assumption that it was acceptable, that I, as a fellow white guy, of course wouldn't be offended. I saw black people having abuse hurled at them in the street, something I've never seen in twenty years of living in England. And, of course, Glasgow still has routine violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics, something that only happens in England in history books.

And that's before you even get started on the treatment of the English in Scotland. A commenter to this blog put it well (years ago, before all the comments were destroyed (sorry)) when he said that you can wear a Union Jack T-shirt in Germany, a country that, within living memory, was razed to dust by the RAF, and the most that's likely to happen to you is that a German may approach you to say what a lovely time they had on holiday in Buckinghamshire last year. Whereas no-one in their right mind would wear a St George's Cross in Scotland without first checking ambulance availability — because of grudges borne over some shit that happened before the Renaissance. While Braveheart was in the cinema when I was at St Andrews, it became dangerous for the English to walk the streets after dark. Some poor student would end up covered in blood most nights. How many Japanese were beaten up in America while Pearl Harbour was showing?

And no, this is not a condemnation of all Scots. Scots are great people, which is surely why they constitute most of my friends. But just as it is possible for me to notice the bastards in Scotland without condemning the whole country, or to love living in Northern Ireland while not being able to help noticing that some of the people here are fucking murderous lunatics, or to have Welsh friends while still donating generously to sheep rescue centres, it ought to be possible for Scots nationalists to hate UKIP or The Daily Mail or David Cameron without declaring that England is a hateful racist unredeemable reactionary country. But apparently it isn't.

And I'm not convinced it's a good idea to try to build a nation on a foundation of delusion.

Unity has been effectively destroyed by the divisiveness of the campaign. I'm still sure it'll be Yes tomorrow, but that's immaterial now: whichever way it goes, it's going to be damn close, which means the losing side aren't going to feel like they've been defeated by a proper mandate. For a decision this important, you don't want close; you really want the winners to get at least 65%, ideally more. A country with a near-enough fifty-fifty split of people who disagree about which nation-state they belong to is... well, it's Northern Ireland. The nationalists like to talk about how, after the Referendum, everyone in the country, having had a lovely debate, will bury their differences and work together for the betterment of all. Sorry, but it doesn't work like that. You can't call people "traitor" and "quisling" and expect it all to be shrugged off the next day. The residual bitterness will hardly make things easy.

And as for leadership, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have from the outset shown themselves to be the last people you want anywhere near power: mendacious, weasley, smug, paranoid bullies. Now, I know a lot of Yes voters who agree with me on this point, and whose attitude is that, once Scotland's independent, the SNP's job is done and Salmond should fuck off. An admirable sentiment, but, let's face it, that's never going to happen. Politicians, once they have power, grip onto it like grim death. There are rare exceptions to this, but Salmond is no Gorbachev.

So, absent the SNP leaving or losing (fat chance of either), Scotland is to be founded and run by the sort of people who think they can use threats to default on their share of the national debt as a bargaining chip and that this won't have wider implications for the country. Best of luck, Scotland, when your newly independent state needs to borrow money and the man doing the asking has a record of publicly boasting about his intention to default. Credit ratings do actually matter.

And all this trouble for what? As Mark Steyn puts it:

The Scottish people are being invited to decide whether their cradle-to-grave welfare state will be more flush as a semi-devolved entity dependent on subventions from Westminster or as a reborn Kingdom of Scotland dependent on subventions from the European Union.

So, if I still lived in Scotland, I would vote No.

Lord knows, the No campaign have been awful: disorganised, limp, ineffective, stupid, patronising. There is a good case to be made for the Union, and our idiot lords and masters have largely failed to make it. There is no way on Earth such a tongue-dragging shower of lukewarm farts could have persuaded me of anything. But, in the end, they didn't have to.

It is the Yes campaign that have persuaded me. Because there is also a damn good case to be made for Independence, and they have singularly failed to make it. And, whilst the No campaign failed through incompetence, the Yes campaign appear to have been extremely competent. And what they've been competent at is spreading a quite monumental mix of bromides and fantastical wishful thinking while claiming that any unhelpful information can only be the result of a vast conspiracy. I can no longer bring myself to associate with such people.

Not that I have a vote. Those of us who don't live in Scotland aren't allowed a say in whether our own national identity is destroyed. Democracy? Pff.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Scotland and identity.

Some of you may remember the 1992 general election. I do. I missed being old enough to vote in it by six days, so was annoyed. What was interesting about it was the stark difference between the predicted result and the actual result. I mean, yeah, sure, predictions are often a bit wrong. But in 1992, they were staggeringly wrong.

Every opinion poll said Labour would win. Labour were so confident — in fact, not even just confident, but sure — of victory that they openly celebrated, producing footage that looked a bit embarrassing a few days later. The media were sure of a Labour win too. On election night, every time a Tory lost their seat, they would be interviewed not only about the loss of their seat but about the loss of their government. If you went to bed about ten or eleven, you were fully expecting to wake up to a Labour government.

And then the Tories won the largest number of popular votes in British history.

Sure, the vagaries of the electoral system meant that they only had a narrow majority in Parliament, which is fair enough, but MORE VOTES THAN ANYONE ELSE EVER! is exactly the sort of thing that opinion polls should be able to detect, and they didn't. They didn't come close. So there was much discussion at the time about what the hell was wrong with the bloody opinion polls, and how they might be fixed. There was proper academic research done too. And the academics discovered something quite interesting, and something quite obvious. The interesting thing was that pollsters were asking the wrong question.

What they ask is: "If the election were tomorrow, how would you vote?" Turns out, the problem with this is that it registers vain protests. And this is the obvious thing that the academics discovered: A lifelong Labour voter whose parents voted Labour and whose grandparents voted Labour might well tell a pollster they're going to vote Conservative because they're a bit pissed off with Ed Milliband this week (who isn't?), but, once in a polling booth, will never ever do such a thing.

The question polls should ask is: "Which party do you identify with?" People who feel like they're a part of the Conservative Party, who feel that a Tory is who they are, will vote Conservative. Some polling organisations now try to take account of this by asking people how they voted in the last election.

The important finding here is that, for the most part, people vote based on identity, on tribalism. It's which group you feel you belong to that influences how you vote.

So, the moment the Scottish Referendum was announced, I said, "That's it: Scotland's leaving the UK." There has never for one moment been any doubt in my mind that Scotland will vote to leave. I have been frankly surprised that so many professional politicians — who, whatever you may think of their policies, should at least know a bit about politics and elections — have been convinced that the No campaign would win and are apparently genuinely surprised now that it looks like they won't. I never trusted the opinion polls that showed that No would win, and I don't trust the latest polls that show that Yes will win, despite their happening to be right by sheer luck. Obviously Scotland will vote to be an independent country. Because there is simply no way to separate a referendum like this from the question of identity, and Scots' primary identity is always Scottish. Yes, plenty of Scots are proud to be British — but they're Scottish first.

Thing is, unlike in a general election, this is actually a good thing: this Referendum should be about identity. The campaigning on both sides has been some of the stupidest I've ever seen (and I saw Labour try to persuade the country that Michael Foot would be a great Prime Minister), as it has all been about policy, or about the next five to ten years, or about whether Scotland is viable as a nation. Utter bollocks, the lot of it.

The decision to secede will last for centuries. No-one knows what'll happen over that time. Trying to claim that it's a good or a bad idea on the basis of some current concern is much like basing your opinion of the Union on Whig policy. This Referendum has nothing to do with policy, for how on Earth can it? It is, simply, about what Scotland is, about what being Scottish means — not about what any Scottish government might do. Gut feeling about identity is probably the best way to vote. It's certainly better than taking Alex Salmond or the God-awful Nicola Sturgeon seriously.

Scotland will do very well by itself, eventually. It might even do very well immediately, though I think that's less likely. But good luck regardless. The Union was bloody great (and bloody, and great) and demonstrated that the English can achieve great things with help from the Scots and that the Scots can achieve great things with help from the English. But this is a democracy, and it doesn't look like the Union is really wanted anymore.

Course, if I'm wrong, this post is going to look as embarrassing as that celebratory Labour footage. Nearly.